Pop songs with baggage.

Songs you've got to hear.
April 22 2004 5:07 PM

Songs With Baggage

Pop music grapples with its past.

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The Who"Old Red Wine" (Geffen)
Click here to listen. On one of the two new songs that stud Then and Now, the band's eighty-millionth best-of comp, Pete Townshend directly addresses the fact that the Who are not just old but over the hill. For two and a half minutes, "Old Red Wine" is ponderous and shaky; Townshend and the quavering-voiced Roger Daltrey have lost the rhythm section they built the band with, and it sounds like they're mustering some final reserves of balladeering bluster because they can't quite rock any more. And then Townshend remembers that he's got a handful of tricks left and pulls out the staccato electric attack that's been his secret weapon for 40 years. Daltrey, catching his partner's drift, steels his muscles and bellows his demand: "Just let it breathe"—just accept their youth-obsessed band in its old age. It almost works.

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Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings"Genuine" (Dap-Tone)
Click here to listen. As with most things released on the Dap-Tone label, this newly recorded single is an attempt to refute the passage of time—to assert that it is, in fact, still 1971, that hard James Brown-style funk is still at the top of the charts, and that anything else you may be imagining is just a bad dream. To aid in the construction of this fantasy, "Genuine" has been released only on 7-inch, 45 RPM vinyl. But a little crackle enriches the Dap-Kings' pause-and-pounce grooves. Their retro sonics extend to the ultra-crisp, reverbless bass-and-drum sounds, to the squiggle of baritone sax that screws down the end of every phrase, and especially to Jones' delicious evocation of singers like Marva Whitney and Vicki Anderson, who toured and recorded with Brown's revue. Best joke: The lyrics of this scrupulous replica are all about being the real thing, and Jones hollers them so passionately that the funk canon opens up to let it in.

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James Brown"Think!" (Polygram Chronicles)
Click here to listen. In 1957, the "5" Royales released their original version of this ferocious R&B confession. In 1960, James Brown obliterated it with his first of many recordings of "Think"—far faster, louder and ruder, with just enough words altered to change the lyric from a plea to a demand and make it clear that his was the new wave of R&B. Then he crushed that version with the 105-second rocket through its arrangement on his breakthrough album, James Brown Live at the Apollo (1962). The new reissue includes this oddity: a 1964 single that slows down the 1962 live tape to roughly the speed of the 1960 version. The result sounds almost horrifying, an attempt to recapture the past by mangling the slightly less distant past. It exposes the grain of the Apollo recording and yields something half-decomposed—Brown slurring and breathless, barely gesturing at the lyrics, the band struggling to keep up, the song collapsing without the momentum that held it together.

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Franz Ferdinand"Take Me Out" (Domino)
Click here to listen. The highlight of this wildly hyped band's self-titled debut is an exercise in contrast between two very different kinds of party music. The first minute or so of this invitation to murder is a dead-on imitation of the Strokes; then it abruptly downshifts into pure double-bump disco-rock. Watching the audience as Franz Ferdinand perform it live is a lesson in what guitar-based pop has mostly forgotten over the last 25 years—that when people go out to hear loud music, they want to move their bodies, and not just in place. As soon as the band hits the downbeat of the disco section, everyone in the jitter-dancing crowd changes posture, and starts hustling like they've just seen the sun for the first time and it's a gigantic glitter ball.

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Belle and Sebastian"I'm a Cuckoo (by the Avalanches)" (Rough Trade)
Click here to listen. The original recording of "I'm a Cuckoo" is Stuart Murdoch attempting to demonstrate he's not just a pale, willowy pop kid: Really, he can rock out (and helpfully name-drop Thin Lizzy in the lyrics). Even so, it sounds just like any other Belle and Sebastian song, not that there's anything wrong with that. This gleefully radical remix by the Australian team the Avalanches deletes everything but Murdoch's voice from the original and replaces the band with the Southern Sudanese Choir, flutes, and hand percussion. The idea, perhaps, is to demonstrate that if these pale, willowy pop kids really wanted to distance themselves from their stylistic reputation, there'd be nothing stopping them: Murdoch's tunes are lithe and indelible enough that they can thrive in any soil.

Douglas Wolk is the author of Live at the Apollo.

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